And by a prudent flight and cunning save A life which valour could not, from the grave. A better buckler I can soon regain, But who can get another life again? Archilochus

Saturday, April 29, 2023

Today's Daily Dose of Zizek and Byung-Chul Han...

Sergio c. Fanjul Interview w/ Byung-Chul Han (Oct 2021)
Byung-Chul Han: ‘The smartphone is a tool of domination. It acts like a rosary
In this exclusive interview with EL PAÍS, the South Korean-born philosopher discusses digital subjugation, the disappearance of ritual and what ‘Squid Game’ reveals about society

The material world of atoms and molecules, of things we can touch and smell, is dissolving away into a world of non-things, according to the South Korean-born Swiss-German philosopher Byung-Chul Han. We continue to desire these non-things, and even to buy and sell them, Han says. They continue to influence us. While the digital world is increasingly blurred with what we still consider the “real” world, our existence is ever more intangible and fleeting, he believes. The best-selling thinker, sometimes referred to as a rockstar philosopher, is still meticulously dissecting the anxieties produced by neoliberal capitalism.

By combining quotations from great philosophers and elements of popular culture, Han’s latest book Undinge (or Nonobjects), which is yet to be published in English, analyzes our “burnout society,” in which we live exhausted and depressed by the unavoidable demands of existence. He has also considered new forms of entertainment and “psychopolitics,” where citizens surrender meekly to the seduction of the system, along with the disappearance of eroticism, which Han blames on current trends for narcissism and exhibitionism.

This narcissism runs riot on social media, he believes, where the obsession with oneself makes others disappear and the world becomes a simple reflection of us as individuals. The philosopher strives to recover intimate contact in everyday life – he is known for his interest in gardening, making things with his hands and sitting in silence. He despairs of “the disappearance of rituals,” which also makes entire communities disappear along with them. We become lost individuals, in sick and cruel societies.

Byung-Chul Han conducted this interview with EL PAÍS by email in German, which has subsequently been translated and edited for clarity.

Question. How is it possible that in a world obsessed with hyperproduction and hyperconsumption, at the same time objects are disappearing and we are moving toward a world of non-things?

Answer. There is without a doubt a hyperinflation of objects, meaning they are everywhere. However, these are disposable objects that we cannot really bond with. Today we are obsessed not with things, but with information and data, that is to say, non-things. Today we are all infomaniacs. We even have the concept of datasexuals [people who obsessively collect and share information about their personal lives].

Q. In this world you describe, one of hyper-consumption where relationships are lost, why is it important to have objects that we love, and to establish rituals?

A. These things are a support structure that provides peace of mind in life. Nowadays, that is often obscured by information. The smartphone is not a thing. It produces and processes information, and information gives us the opposite of peace of mind. It lives off the stimulus of surprise, and of immersing us in a whirlwind of news. Rituals give life some stability. The pandemic has destroyed these temporal structures. Think of remote working. When time loses its structure, depression sets in.

Q. Your book states that in a digital world we will become “homo ludens,” focused on play rather than work. But given the precariousness of the job market, will we all be able to access that lifestyle?

A. I have talked about digital unemployment. Digitalization will lead to mass unemployment, and that will represent a very serious problem in the future. Will the human future consist of basic income and computer games? That’s a discouraging outlook. In Panem et circenses [or Bread and Circuses], [Roman poet] Juvenal refers to a Roman society where political action is not possible. People are kept happy with free food and entertainment. Total domination arrives when society is only engaged in play. The recent Korean Netflix show Squid Game points in this direction.

Q. In what way?

A. [In the series] the characters are in debt and agree to play this deadly game that promises them huge winnings. The Squid Game represents a central aspect of capitalism in an extreme form. [German philosopher] Walter Benjamin said that capitalism represents the first case of a cult that is not sacrificial but puts us into debt. In the early days of digitalization, people dreamed that work would be replaced by play. In reality, digital capitalism ruthlessly exploits the human drive for play. Think of social media, which deliberately incorporates playful elements to cause addiction in users.

Q. Indeed, smartphones promised us a certain freedom... but are we not in fact imprisoned by them?

A. The smartphone today is either a digital workplace or a digital confessional. Every device, and every technique of domination, generates totems that are used for subjugation. This is how domination is strengthened. The smartphone is the cult object of digital domination. As a subjugation device, it acts like a rosary and its beads; this is how we keep a smartphone constantly at hand. The ‘like’ is a digital “amen.” We keep going to confession. We undress by choice. But we don’t ask for forgiveness: instead, we call out for attention.
Surveillance is increasingly and surreptitiously imposing itself on everyday life
Q. Some fear that the Internet of Things could one day mean that objects will rebel against human beings.

A. Not exactly. The smart home of interconnected objects represents a digital prison. The smart bed with sensors extends surveillance even during sleep. Surveillance is increasingly and surreptitiously imposing itself on everyday life, as if it were just the convenient thing to do. Digital things are proving to be efficient informants that constantly monitor and control us.

Q. You have described how work is becoming more like a game, and social media, paradoxically, makes us feel freer. Capitalism seduces us. Has the system managed to dominate us in a way that is actually pleasing to us?

A. Only a repressive regime provokes resistance. On the contrary, the neoliberal regime, which does not oppress freedom, but exploits it, does not face any resistance. It is not repressive, but seductive. Domination becomes complete the moment it presents itself as freedom.

Q. Why, despite growing precarity and inequality, does the everyday world in Western countries seem so beautiful, hyper-designed and optimistic? Why doesn’t it seem like a dystopian or cyberpunk movie?

A. George Orwell’s novel 1984 has recently become a worldwide bestseller. People sense
 that something is wrong in our digital comfort zone. But our society is more like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. In 1984, people are controlled by the threat of harm. In Brave New World, they are controlled by administering pleasure. The state distributes a drug called “soma” to make everyone feel happy. That is our future.
Q. You suggest that artificial intelligence or big data are not the incredible forms of knowledge they are promoted to be, but rather “rudimentary.” Why is that?

A. Big data is only a very primitive form of knowledge, namely correlation: if A happens, then B happens. There is no understanding. Artificial intelligence does not think. Artificial intelligence doesn’t get goosebumps.

Q. French writer and mathematician Blaise Pascal said that: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” We live in a cult of productivity, even during what we call “free” time. You named it, with great success, the burnout society. Should the recovery of our own time be set as a political objective?

A. Human existence today is totally absorbed by activity. This makes it completely exploitable. Inactivity reappears in the capitalist system of domination as an incorporation of something external. It is called leisure time, and as it serves to recover from work, it remains linked to it. We need a policy of inactivity. This could serve to free up time from the obligations of production and make real leisure time possible.

Q. How do you reconcile a society that tries to homogenize us with people’s growing desire to be different from others, to be in a certain way, unique?

A. Everyone today wants to be authentic, that is, different from others. We are constantly comparing ourselves with others. It is precisely this comparison that makes us all the same. In other words: the obligation to be authentic leads to the hell of sameness.
We are constantly comparing ourselves with others. It is precisely this comparison that makes us all the same
Do we need more silence, more willingness to listen to others?

A. We need information to be silenced. Otherwise, our brains will explode. Today we perceive the world through information. That’s how we lose the experience of being present. We are increasingly disconnected from the world. We are losing the world. The world is more than information, and the screen is a poor representation of the world. We revolve in a circle around ourselves. The smartphone contributes decisively to this poor perception of the world. A fundamental symptom of depression is the absence of the world.

Q. Depression is one of the most alarming health problems we are facing today. How does this “absence of world” operate?

A. When we are depressed we lose our relationship with the world, with the other. We sink into a scattered ego. I think digitalization, and the smartphone, make us depressed. There are stories of dentists who say that their patients cling to their phones when a treatment is painful. Why do they do that? Thanks to the smartphone, I am aware of myself. It helps me to be certain that I am alive, that I exist. That’s why we cling to our cellphones in situations like dental treatment. As a child, I remember holding my mother’s hand at the dentist’s office. Today the mother will not offer the child her hand, but a cellphone. Support does not come from others, but from oneself. That makes us sick. We have to recover the other person.

Q. According to the philosopher Fredric Jameson, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Can you picture some form of post-capitalism, now that it seems to be in decline?

A. Capitalism really responds to the instinctive structures of man. But man is not only an instinctive being. We have to tame, civilize and humanize capitalism. That is also possible. The social market economy is a demonstration of it. But our economy is entering a new era, the era of sustainability.

Q. You received your doctorate with a thesis on German philosopher Martin Heidegger, who explored the most abstract forms of thought and whose texts are very obscure to the layman. Yet you manage to apply that abstract thinking to issues that anyone can experience. Should philosophy be more concerned with a world where the majority of the population lives?

A. [French philosopher] Michel Foucault defines philosophy as a kind of radical journalism, and he considers himself a journalist. Philosophers should be concerned with today, with current affairs. In this, I follow Foucault’s lead. I try to interpret today in my thoughts. These thoughts are precisely what set us free.

Carles Geli interview with Byung-Chul Han (Feb 2018)
In Orwell’s ‘1984’ society knew it was being dominated. Not today
Speaking in Barcelona, South Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han argues social values have been eroded by consumerist culture

Philosopher Byung-Chul Hal is one of the most recognized critics of the problems caused by the hyper-consumerist and neoliberal society after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In books such as Fatigue Society, Psychopolitics and The Expulsion of Difference (published in Spain by Herder), the South Korean-born German author takes aim at this society and its effects on the individual.

“In Orwell’s 1984 society knew it was being dominated. Today we are not even aware of the domination,” he said on Tuesday at the Center of Contemporary Culture in Barcelona (CCCB). There, speaking about the eradication of difference, the Berlin University of the Arts professor gave his vision of the world today, a world where people exploit themselves, fear otherness and live in “the desert, hell or sameness.”
Time worked is time lost, it is not time for ourselves
According to Han, people sell themselves as authentic “because everyone wants to be different from the rest.” This forces a person to “produce themselves” and this is impossible to do authentically because from “the desire to be different creates sameness.” As a result, the system only allows “marketable differences,” he says.

Self-exploitation. In Han’s opinion, society’s attitude has moved from “we have to do it” to “we can do it.” “We live with the anguish of not always doing what we are able to do.” “Today a person exploits themselves believing they are fulfilling themselves. It is the wicked logic of neoliberalism that culminates in the syndrome of the burned-out worker.” This has a very damaging effect. “There is no one the revolution can attack, repression does not come from other people.” It is the “alienation of one’s self” that can manifest as anorexia, overeating or the over-consumption of consumer or leisure products.

Big data. “Macrodata has made thought superfluous because if everything is countable everything is the same … We are in the middle of dataism: man is no longer in charge of himself but is instead the result of an algorithmic operation that controls him without him realizing it. We see it in China with the concession of visas according to state data, or in face-recognition technology.” Will refusing to share data or be on social networks turn into an act of revolt? “We have to adjust the system: the ebook is made to be read, not so I can be read through algorithms… Or does the algorithm now make the man? In the United States, we have seen the influence of Facebook in the elections… We need a digital agreement that restores human dignity and to consider a basic income for professions that will be devoured by new technologies.”
The desire to be different creates sameness
. “Without the presence of another, communication will degenerate into an information exchange: relationships will be replaced by connections, and only connect with the same. Digital communication is just sight, we have lost all our sense, we are at a stage where communication has been weakened like never before: global communication and “likes” are restricted to what is most similar. Sameness doesn’t hurt!”

Garden. “I am different, I am surrounded by analogue objects. I have two 400kg pianos and for three years I have grown a secret garden that connects me to reality: colors, scents, feelings… I have allowed myself to notice the earth’s otherness: earth had weight, everything was done by hand, what’s digital has no weight, no resistance, you can move a finger and there it is … It is the abolition of reality. My next book will be called Eulogy to earth. The secret garden. Earth is more than digits and numbers."

Narcissism. Han believes that “being observed is a central part of our being today.” But the problem is that the “narcissist is blind when it comes to seeing the other.” and without this other “one cannot create a sense of self-esteem by themselves.” Art has also been affected by this trend: “It has degenerated into narcissism, it is at the service of the consumer, stupid and unjustifiable quantities of money are spent on it, it is already a victim of the system.”
Earth is more than digits and numbers
. This is central to Han’s most recent reflections. “The greater the similarity between people, the greater the production, this is the current logic. Capitalism needs all of us to be the same, including tourists. Neoliberalism would not work if people were different.” To recover our differences, Han suggests “returning to the inner animal, which doesn’t consume or communicate unfortunately. I don’t have concrete solutions. In the end the system might implode by itself… In whatever case, we are living in a radically conformist time… the world is at the limit of its capacities, perhaps it will short circuit and we will recover this inner animal.”

Refugees. On this subject Han is very clear: with the current neoliberal system “refugees do not inspire fear, terror or disgust but are rather seen as a burden, with resentment or envy.”

Time. The way time is used needs to be revolutionized, says Han. “Time worked is time lost, it is not time for ourselves.”

Sunday, April 23, 2023

Slavoj Zizek - Buddhism and Happiness/Sacrifice

Slavoj Zizek, "Suck My Tongue, Crush My Balls"
The controversy surrounding a recent video of the Dalai Lama greeting a seven-year-old boy was not merely a classic case of “lost in translation.” It also speaks to the deep, ineradicable abyss that can separate cultures, and invites reflection on the confusion surrounding intentions and desires that can occur within cultures.

LJUBLJANA – In a recent viral video, the Dalai Lama can be seen asking a seven-year-old boy, at a widely attended public ceremony, to give him a hug and then, “Suck my tongue.” The immediate reaction from many in the West was to condemn the Dalai Lama for behaving inappropriately, with many speculating that he is senile, a pedophile, or both. Others, more charitably, noted that sticking out one’s tongue is a traditional practice in Tibetan culture – a sign of benevolence (demonstrating that one’s tongue is not dark, which indicates evil). Still, asking someone to suck it has no place in the tradition.

In fact, the correct Tibetan phrase is “Che le sa,” which translates roughly to “Eat my tongue.” Grandparents often use it lovingly to tease a grandchild, as if to say: “I’ve given you everything, so the only thing left is for you to eat my tongue.” Needless to say, the meaning was lost in translation. (Although English is the Dalai Lama’s second language, he does not possess native-level mastery.)

To be sure, the fact that something is part of a tradition does not necessarily preclude it from scrutiny or criticism. Clitoridectomy is also a part of ancient Tibetan tradition, but we certainly would not defend it today. And even sticking out one’s tongue has undergone a strange evolution in the last half-century. As Wang Lixiong and Tsering Shakya write in The Struggle for Tibet:

“During the Cultural Revolution, if an old landowner met emancipated serfs on the road he would stand to the side, at a distance, putting a sleeve over his shoulder, bowing down and sticking out his tongue – a courtesy paid by those of lower status to their superiors – and would only dare to resume his journey after the former serfs had passed by. Now [after Deng Xiaoping’s reforms] things have changed back: the former serfs stand at the side of the road, bow and stick out their tongues, making way for their old lords. This has been a subtle process, completely voluntary, neither imposed by anyone nor explained.”

Here, sticking out one’s tongue signals self-humiliation, not loving care. Following Deng’s “reforms,” ex-serfs understood that they were again at the bottom of the social scale. Even more interesting is the fact that the same ritual survived such tremendous social transformations.

Returning to the Dalai Lama, it is probable – and certainly plausible – that Chinese authorities orchestrated or facilitated the wide dissemination of a clip that could besmirch the figure who most embodies Tibetan resistance to Chinese domination.

In any case, we have all now gotten a glimpse of the Dalai Lama as our “neighbor” in the Lacanian sense of the term: an Other who cannot be reduced to someone like us, whose otherness represents an impenetrable abyss. Western observers’ highly sexualized interpretation of his antics reflects an unbridgeable gap in cultural understanding.

But similar cases of impenetrable otherness are easy to find within Western culture. Years ago, when I read about how the Nazis tortured prisoners, I was quite traumatized to learn that they even resorted to industrial testicle-crushers to cause unbearable pain.

Yet lo and behold, I recently came across the same product in an online advertisement:

“Pick your poison for pleasure … STAINLESS STEEL BALL CRUSHER, STAINLESS BALL CLAMP TORTURE DEVICE, BRUTAL COCK VICE TORTURE TOY, HARDCORE STAINLESS BALL TORTURE … So if you lie in bed with your partner, melancholic and tired of life, the time is right. Your slave’s nuts are ripe for crushing! It is the moment you have been waiting for – to find the right tool to brutalize his balls!”

Now, suppose I walked by a room where two men were enjoying this device. Hearing one of them moan and cry in pain, I would probably misread what was happening. Should I knock on the door and politely ask, at the risk of being an idiot, “Is this really consensual?” After all, if I just kept walking, I would be ignoring the possibility that it really was an act of torture.

Or, imagine a scenario where a man is doing something similar to a woman – torturing her consensually. In this age of political correctness, many people would automatically presume coercion, or they would conclude that the woman had internalized male repression and begun to identify with the enemy.

It is impossible to render this situation without ambiguity, uncertainty, or confusion, because there really are some men and women who genuinely enjoy some degree of torture, especially if it is enacted as if it was nonconsensual. In these sadomasochistic rituals, the act of punishment signals the presence of some underlying desire that warrants it. For example, in a culture where rape is punished by flogging, a man might ask his neighbor to flog him brutally, not as some kind of atonement, but because he harbors a deep-seated desire to rape women.

In one sense, the passage from Nazi ball crushers to the erotic kind used in sadomasochist games can be seen as a sign of historical progress. But it runs parallel to the “progress” that leads some people to purge classic works of art of any content that might hurt or offend somebody.

We are left with a culture in which it is okay to engage in consensual discomfort at the level of bodily pleasures, but not in the realm of words and ideas. The irony, of course, is that efforts to prohibit or suppress certain words and ideas will merely make them more attractive and powerful as secret, profane desires. The fact that some superego has enjoined them furnishes them with a pleasure – and pleasure-seekers – that they otherwise would not have had.

Why does increasing permissiveness seem to entail increasing impotence and fragility. And why, under certain conditions, can pleasure be enjoyed only through pain? Contrary to what Freud’s critics have long claimed, psychoanalysis’s moment has only just arrived, because it is the only framework that can render visible the big inconsistent mess that we call “sexuality.”


Hacking and Reverse Engineering an Intelligent 5G (like) Inter/ Intra Cell-Communication protocol for Biological Systems and re-applying it to Artificially Intelligent Electro-Mechanical Machine-based Networks with nested intelligences

Saturday, April 15, 2023

Now I know why the Caged Bird Sings...

4 The error of imaginary causes. To begin with dreams: ex post facto, a cause is slipped under a particular sensation (for example, one following a far-off cannon shot)--often a whole little novel in which the dreamer turns up as the protagonist. The sensation endures meanwhile in a kind of resonance: it waits, as it were, until the causal instinct permits it to step into the foreground--now no longer as a chance occurrence, but as "meaning." The cannon shot appears in a causal mode, in an apparent reversal of time. What is really later, the motivation, is experienced first--often with a hundred details which pass like lightning and the shot follows. What has happened? The representations which were produced by a certain state have been misunderstood as its causes.

In fact, we do the same thing when awake. Most of our general feelings--every kind of inhibition, pressure, tension, and explosion in the play and counterplay of our organs, and particularly the state of the nervus sympaticus--excite our causal instinct: we want to have a reason for feeling this way or that--for feeling bad or for feeling good. We are never satisfied merely to state the fact that we feel this way or that: we admit this fact only--become conscious of it only--when we have furnished some kind of motivation. Memory, which swings into action in such cases, unknown to us, brings up earlier states of the same kind, together with the causal interpretations associated with them--not their real causes. The faith, to be sure, that such representations, such accompanying conscious processes are the causes is also brought forth by memory. Thus originates a habitual acceptance of a particular causal interpretation, which, as a matter of fact, inhibits any investigation into the real cause--even precludes it.

5 The psychological explanation of this. To derive something unknown from something familiar relieves, comforts, and satisfies, besides giving a feeling of power. With the unknown, one is confronted with danger, discomfort, and care; the first instinct is to abolish these painful states. First principle: any explanation is better than none. Since at bottom it is merely a matter of wishing to be rid of oppressive representations, one is not too particular about the means of getting rid of them: the first representation that explains the unknown as familiar feels so good that one "considers it true." The proof of pleasure ("of strength") as a criterion of truth.

The causal instinct is thus conditional upon, and excited by, the feeling of fear. The "why?" shall, if at all possible, not give the cause for its own sake so much as for a particular kind of cause--a cause that is comforting, liberating, and relieving. That it is something already familiar, experienced, and inscribed in the memory, which is posited as a cause, that is the first consequence of this need. That which is new and strange and has not been experienced before, is excluded as a cause. Thus one searches not only for some kind of explanation to serve as a cause, but for a particularly selected and preferred kind of explanation--that which has most quickly and most frequently abolished the feeling of the strange, new, and hitherto unexperienced: the most habitual explanations. Consequence: one kind of positing of causes predominates more and more, is concentrated into a system and finally emerges as dominant, that is, as simply precluding other causes and explanations. The banker immediately thinks of "business," the Christian of "sin," and the girl of her love
--Nietzsche, "Twilight of the Idols"

Sunday, April 9, 2023

Culture & Ritual... Marking the Temporal Edges of Dasein. Happy Easter!

from Wikipedia:
Falla monument
A Falla or monumento fallero is an artistic monument, usually large (three to twenty meters in height, sometimes higher) composed of figures called ninots, which typically encircle one or more bigger central figures, called remates. The fallas are placed in the streets during the Falles festival in Valencia (Spain), and in other towns with festivals inspired by it. The monument usually deals with a satirical subject connected with recent news or public controversies, and is covered in posters with words, verses and statements of a humorous nature. The monument is made with combustible materials (cardboard, wood, paper, clothing, expanded polystyrene, etc.) which are then burned in the streets after being on show for a few days.

Origin and evolution
In medieval Valencian the word Falla named the torches that were placed on top of watchtowers. This word is derived from Latin Facula, torch. In the Llibre dels feits, it is stated that the troops of King James I of Aragon carried Fallas to light their way.

The material origin of the monumento fallero was burning waste from carpenters and private homes. That is to say, it came from popular festivities and those of local guilds. It was often children who, on the eve of Saint Joseph's festivity, patron saint of the woodworkers guild, made the collection with things such as cattail chairs, old furniture, brooms or grass mats on the eve of Saint Joseph's festivity, patron saint of the woodworkers guild.

In this, the fallas festivity was not very different from the Hogueras de San Juan (for example those in Alicante), which are held throughout Europe or the bonfires of Hogueras de San Antonio also very typical of Valencia too.

The specific quality of the Fallas comes from the fact that it is a festival of particular neighbourhoods in which locals take the opportunity to criticize each other. With the creation of the first, very rudimentary, figures, came the burlesque, satirical posters. These criticisms were often directed at the municipal power, the church or the state.

This first stage of the festivity ranges from its uncertain beginnings to the last decades of the nineteenth century. In those days the ninots were made of waste, paper, wood and cardboard.

It is around the turn of the century when the first ninots with a cloth body and a head and hands made of wax appeared. The creation of these takes a lot more work so we can say that the figure of the fallero artist is born. This period lasts until the 1920s–1930s. There is at this stage a transformation in the festivity, with the appearance of mold cardboard figures.

This technique allowed for the building of higher monuments and it has come down almost to the present day, where it is still used, especially for smaller ninots and fallas of lower budgets. An advantage inside the disadvantage of the mold technique is the possibility of making the same ninot indefinitely. Therefore, the fallas with bigger budgets made original molds every year, which were used by others at a lower price the following years. Finally, from 1990s appeared the technique of expanded polystyrene or Styrofoam. Its lighter weight allows for more height in the monuments, and requires greater innovation in design.

Friday, April 7, 2023

Post-Human Post-Haste


Slavoj Zizek, "The Post-Human Desert"

Unlike past technological innovations, artificial intelligence is not about humanity’s mastery over nature, but rather about relinquishing control altogether. Whether we realize it or not, the old anthropocentric arrogance that technology enables may soon give way to human irrelevance and meaninglessness.

LJUBLJANA – The Future of Life Institute’s open letter demanding a six-month precautionary pause on artificial-intelligence development has already been signed by thousands of high-profile figures, including Elon Musk. The signatories worry that AI labs are “locked in an out-of-control race” to develop and deploy increasingly powerful systems that no one – including their creators – can understand, predict, or control.

What explains this outburst of panic among a certain cohort of elites? Control and regulation are obviously at the center of the story, but whose? During the proposed half-year pause when humanity can take stock of the risks, who will stand for humanity? Since AI labs in China, India, and Russia will continue their work (perhaps in secret), a global public debate on the issue is inconceivable.

Still, we should consider what is at stake, here. In his 2015 book, Homo Deus, the historian Yuval Harari predicted that the most likely outcome of AI would be a radical division – much stronger than the class divide – within human society. Soon enough, biotechnology and computer algorithms will join their powers in producing “bodies, brains, and minds,” resulting in a widening gap “between those who know how to engineer bodies and brains and those who do not.” In such a world, “those who ride the train of progress will acquire divine abilities of creation and destruction, while those left behind will face extinction.”

The panic reflected in the AI letter stems from the fear that even those who are on the “train of progress” will be unable to steer it. Our current digital feudal masters are scared. What they want, however, is not public debate, but rather an agreement among governments and tech corporations to keep power where it belongs.

A massive expansion of AI capabilities is a serious threat to those in power – including those who develop, own, and control AI. It points to nothing less than the end of capitalism as we know it, manifest in the prospect of a self-reproducing AI system that will need less and less input from human agents (algorithmic market trading is merely the first step in this direction). The choice left to us will be between a new form of communism and uncontrollable chaos.

The new chatbots will offer many lonely (or not so lonely) people endless evenings of friendly dialogue about movies, books, cooking, or politics. To reuse an old metaphor of mine, what people will get is the AI version of decaffeinated coffee or sugar-free soda: a friendly neighbor with no skeletons in its closet, an Other that will simply accommodate itself to your own needs. There is a structure of fetishist disavowal here: “I know very well that I am not talking to a real person, but it feels as though I am – and without any of the accompanying risks!”

In any case, a close examination of the AI letter shows it to be yet another attempt at prohibiting the impossible. This is an old paradox: it is impossible for us, as humans, to participate in a post-human future, so we must prohibit its development. To orient ourselves around these technologies, we should ask Lenin’s old question: Freedom for whom to do what? In what sense were we free before? Were we not already controlled much more than we realized? Instead of complaining about the threat to our freedom and dignity in the future, perhaps we should first consider what freedom means now. Until we do this, we will act like hysterics who, according to the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, are desperate for a master, but only one that we can dominate.

The futurist Ray Kurzweil predicts that, owing to the exponential nature of technological progress, we will soon be dealing with “spiritual” machines that will not only display all the signs of self-awareness but also far surpass human intelligence. But one should not confuse this “post-human” stance for the paradigmatically modern preoccupation with achieving total technological domination over nature. What we are witnessing, instead, is a dialectical reversal of this process.

Today’s “post-human” sciences are no longer about domination. Their credo is surprise: what kind of contingent, unplanned emergent properties might “black-box” AI models acquire for themselves? No one knows, and therein lies the thrill – or, indeed, the banality – of the entire enterprise.

Hence, earlier this century, the French philosopher-engineer Jean-Pierre Dupuy discerned in the new robotics, genetics, nanotechnology, artificial life, and AI a strange inversion of the traditional anthropocentric arrogance that technology enables:

“How are we to explain that science became such a ‘risky’ activity that, according to some top scientists, it poses today the principal threat to the survival of humanity? Some philosophers reply to this question by saying that Descartes’s dream – ‘to become master and possessor of nature’ – has turned wrong, and that we should urgently return to the ‘mastery of mastery.’ They have understood nothing. They don’t see that the technology profiling itself at our horizon through ‘convergence’ of all disciplines aims precisely at nonmastery. The engineer of tomorrow will not be a sorcerer’s apprentice because of his negligence or ignorance, but by choice.”

Humanity is creating its own god or devil. While the outcome cannot be predicted, one thing is certain. If something resembling “post-humanity” emerges as a collective fact, our worldview will lose all three of its defining, overlapping subjects: humanity, nature, and divinity. Our identity as humans can exist only against the background of impenetrable nature, but if life becomes something that can be fully manipulated by technology, it will lose its “natural” character. A fully controlled existence is one bereft of meaning, not to mention serendipity and wonder.

The same, of course, holds for any sense of the divine. The human experience of “god” has meaning only from the standpoint of human finitude and mortality. Once we become homo deus and create properties that seem “supernatural” from our old human standpoint, “gods” as we knew them will disappear. The question is what, if anything, will be left. Will we worship the AIs that we created?

There is every reason to worry that tech-gnostic visions of a post-human world are ideological fantasies obfuscating the abyss that awaits us. Needless to say, it would take more than a six-month pause to ensure that humans do not become irrelevant, and their lives meaningless, in the not-too-distant future.

Thursday, April 6, 2023

Byung-Chul Han - Book Review


Jan Bentz, “Rituals Stabilize Life:” Without Them, Man is Lost in a Sea of Sameness

In his short book The Disappearance of Rituals, the Korean-German philosopher and cultural critic, Byun-Chul Han, offers a genealogy of the disappearance of rituals. He does not “interpret [the disappearance] as an emancipatory process,” but rather as a decline of culture and society. In ten chapters he offers a profound analysis of the significance and importance of rituals, not just for the West, but for human nature. Written within the framework of a neoliberal critique, he attacks “production as compulsion,” in other words, the predominant worldview that all dimensions of human life are (or should be) subject to work and production. In his customary declarative style, he makes sweeping criticisms and invites the reader to rethink the topic from a fresh angle.

Han defines rituals as “symbolic techniques of making oneself at home in the world.” They transform “being-in-the-world into a being-at-home,” borrowing terms from the German philosopher Martin Heidegger. Rituals are also “symbolic practices, practices of symbállein, in the sense that they bring people together and create an alliance, a wholeness, a community.”

A plethora of affairs in human existence has been void of ritual, including one’s relation to the world, to time, to community, to the political realm, interpersonal etiquette, and even war and pornography. In all these dimensions, the absence of ritual bespeaks a merely “horizontal” existence that lacks depth, meditation, reflection, and existential force, all so essential for a meaningful human life.

In reference to time, Han says it “lacks a solid structure, it is not a house but an erratic stream. It disintegrates into a mere sequence of point-like presences; it rushes off.” Whereas ritualized time, by contrast,—in the context of religion or community—“stabilizes life.”

Han finds all spheres of life have become commodified, turning them into things to be consumed. Not only are things consumed, so are emotions. “You cannot consume things endlessly, but emotions you can,” he says. “Values today also serve as things for individual consumption.” They become commodities and are exploited for profit in a neoliberal context. “Neoliberalism often makes use of morality for its own sake,” thereby turning good intentions and convictions, however honorable or misguided they may be, into “marks of moral distinction.” A sustainable lifestyle, “vegan shoes,” and more all serve to increase “narcissistic self-respect.”

Opposed to the self-referential and narcissistic social media generation, Han sees rituals as “narrative processes” that decelerate the drive for consumption and offer moments of silence. In a society “governed by ritual, there is no depression. In such a society, the soul is fully absorbed by ritual forms; it is even emptied out.” Han laments that society has lost all feeling for true theatricality, but has instead traded the theatre for a “market, in which one exposes and exhibits oneself. Theatrical presentation gives way to a pornographic exhibition of the private.”

Rituals are also moments of closure, Han feels. Echoing Roger Scruton’s meditation on mourning, Han argues that today’s society is “characterized by an excess of openings and dissolving boundaries” and “losing the capacity for closure,” while life becomes a “purely additive process.” Everything has to take on a provisional nature so as to be better consumed. “Culture,” on the other hand, according to Han, is “a form of closure, and so founds an identity. However, culture is not an excluding but an including identity. It is therefore receptive of what is foreign.” Thus rituals “give form to the essential transitions of life…in the same way seasons do. They are forms of closure. Without them, we slip through.”

This appeal for structure and order—reminiscent of one of Jordan Peterson’s main themes—is embodied, for example, in Christianity: “The religion of Christianity is to a large extent narrative. Festivals such as Easter, Whitsun [Pentecost] and Christmas are key narratives, which provide meaning and orientation.”

Ritual, furthermore, is representative of a game of sorts, which modern society has forgotten how to play. War, an example upon which Han elaborates at length, used to have a game character and there had always been a sense of ‘fair play.’ By contrast, modern warfare “lacks the character of play.” “The compulsion of production destroys play. Modern wars are battles of production.” Han finds the idea of a “drone war” exemplifies the worst kind of war, lacking any honor, where death is the result of a mouse click. War as “ritual combat” was always characterized by “reciprocity,” but today it is “made to fit the forms of production.” He concludes: “The form of war that produces death is diametrically opposed to war as ritual combat.”

While some of Han’s ideas are not new, neither in the larger context of philosophy, nor even in the body of his own work, he makes an authentic case that the lack of ritual has philosophical, psychological, and cultural repercussions. Ideas such as the profusion of transparency, positivity, being overworked, psychopolitics, pornographizisation, etc. have already appeared in his other works.

Han’s criticism is welcome, pertinent, and current, but The Disappearance of Rituals suffers from a tangible absence of resolution. A short preface in which Han explicitly testifies that his work is not characterized by a desire to return to ritual also seems very disconcerting. Just a few sentences into the preface, he seems to undermine the entire force of his argument from the outset. Perhaps because of his Hegelian education, he is willing to present himself as the antithesis of society’s ailments, but shirks a productive synthesis, leaving the latter to fate, i.e. the violent sublation of the spirit in history. Considering Han’s background and his study of Catholic theology, the reader wonders why he does not draw further from this profound heritage and tradition for a productive and optimistic path forward. A return to ritual is easy; nay, it is already present in so many sectors of society: self-help groups, ‘life coaches,’ but also more serious venues such as debate societies and, most obviously, religion. The craving for said rituals may explain why so many are drawn to more ritualized forms of worship, such as the traditional Latin Mass. But regarding such phenomena, Han remains silent.

A conservative reader will agree with many—even all—of Han’s critiques. But they will also feel the absence of a constructive solution.

More from the Dark Side...

Sunday, April 2, 2023

The Crisis of Narration

M.A.Orthofer, "Byung-Chul Han's: The Crisis of Narration"
In Die Krise der Narration ('The Crisis of Narration') Byung-Chul finds that even as we are seemingly awash with narratives and storytelling, we've lost true story-telling -- and find ourselves in fact in a 'post-narrative age'. Society has become increasingly information-driven -- it's the information age, after all --, accelerating its "Entnarrativierung" ('de-narrativization'). The flood of information -- basically simply data -- 'suffocates the spirit of the story'. Even as we constantly exchange information, especially online:
Wir erzählen uns keine Geschichten mehr. Dafür kommunizieren wir exzessiv. Wir posten, sharen und liken. (We don't tell each other stories anymore. For this, we communicate excessively. We post, share and like.)
Han differentiates between 'Storytelling' (using the (capitalized) English word in his text), by which he means the presentation and exchange of information increasingly prevalent today and (the German term) 'erzählen' (also literally 'storytelling'), the traditional and long predominant form. For him, erzählen connected (people, society), while Storytelling contributes to the atomization of these times -- with social media is one of the clearest manifestations of this:
Digitale Platformen wie Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok oder Snapchat sind am Nullpunkt der Erzählung angesiedelt. Sie sind kein Erzähl-, sondern ein Informationsmedium. Sie arbeiten additiv nicht narrativ. Die aneinandergereihten Informationen verdichten sich nicht zur Erzählung. (Digital platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, or Snapchat are at the nadir of narrative. They are not a narrative medium, but rather one of information. They work accretively, not narratively. The strung together information does not coalesce into a narrative.}
Life is presented as an accumulation of data -- raw information --, rather than narratively, a natural consequence of the medium, whose purpose is to collect as much data as possible about individuals, making it easier to 'monitor, steer, and fully economically exploit' them. Storytelling may be widespread in our times, but does not serve the purposes that erzählen does; rather, all it does is instrumentalize and commercialize stories.

Storytelling results in 'de-aura-ization' (Entauratisieung), the world reduced to simple datapoints, without any of the magic and imaginative leaps of the (old-fashioned) narrative. Han goes so far as to claim that erzählen 'heals', a perhaps over-romanticized view but of a piece with his argument.

The presentation of Die Krise der Narration is much like Han's works generally tend to be, divided into short sections -- ten, plus an Introduction, in this short volume --, each then presenting chunks of text and argument like building blocks, paragraph by paragraph with a space between each. He builds on several touchstones -- notably Walter Benjamin -- and also discusses at some length a Paul Maar story that closely reflects many of his concerns and arguments, 'Die Geschichte vom Jungen, der keine Geschichten erzählen konnte' ('The Story of the Boy who Couldn't Tell Any Stories'; published in Die Zeit).

It's an interesting, compact volume of reflection on the subject matter. Much here -- especially the role of social media, and modern technology (smartphones, etc.) in general -- has already been widely discussed in similar terms, but Han does bring it together well around the concept of storytelling and narration. There is certainly room for considerably fuller discussion and exposition, but Han's compact presentation does cover a great deal of ground and he makes his main points well and clearly. It's certainly a nicely packaged, interesting and thought-provoking meditation on the subject.

- M.A.Orthofer, 31 March 2023

More on the subject

Saturday, April 1, 2023

Pornography and the Fantasy Element

Işık Barış Fidaner, "Denialism is lying idly in order to curry to the Bön Crowd" (Google Translate from Turkish)
Through the 'word=phallus' equivalence that appears in the phrase 'putting the word in the crosshair', the social media sewage system is divided into feminine and masculine attitudes:
1) On the one hand, there are artists of dissatisfaction who say, "Where are the very deep words that will take me from me?"

2) On the other side, there are the detectives, that is, the hojas/yowzacilar, who say, "Take a word to you like an arm!"
Moreover, this method of satisfaction is in accordance with the equivalence of 'talking = talking' established by Lacan [1]. In other words, it not only is a 'consolation prize' for unfortunate 'disappointing' individuals who 'need to make love and relax' or 'whose parents do not love', but also constructs the symptomatic world in which they reside in order to construct their Ego.

The 'penetration' principle of social media is to get interaction (influencer / influenza?), that is, to benefit the big crowd [2]. The feminine and masculine forms of this are distinguished as follows:
1) Bön Vivant is the message 'look how full of life I am, but I am not satisfied with anything'.

2) Bön Mot is the message of 'look how I penetrate everything with depressed phallic determinations'.
These two extremes can feed off each other and lie idly on the hook. Thus we arrive at the most general definition of denialism:
Denialism is lying idly in order to benefit the big crowd.
(feminine denier is bön vivant, masculine denier is bön mot)
This generalized denial is also a pornographic world. Slavoj Žižek explained this many years ago in his documentary Perverse Guide Cinema (2006) [3]:
The purest form of the tense strange interconnection between real life and fantasy is revealed in pornography. Pornography has always been a very conservative genre. It is not a free genre that is allowed to do anything, it is based on a very basic prohibition:

A threshold has been crossed, everything is shown. Close-up, etc. But the price is unlimitedly swayed in stories that lure the parties to sexual hospitalization. Pornographic scriptwriters aren't that stupid. Isn't there an upper limit to this? For example, it begins with "the woman is alone in her house":
"The plumber came and repaired the tap hole. Then the housewife turned to him and said: "Look, handsome, I have another hole to fix?" and so on. [current translation: now give me some interaction with this excuse!]
It is certain that something is being censored here. A film is either emotionally gripping, then sexuality is obscured. Or everything is shown, but then you are emotionally stupid.

That's the tragedy of pornography: it tries to be as realistic as possible, but it can't disable the fantasy support unit.

(Perverse Guide Cinema, time adjustment: 01:22)
Işık Barış Fidaner is a computer scientist with a PhD (Boğaziçi University). He is the Editor of Irrelevant Things, the Editor of Žižekian Analysis, and the Curator of Görce Writings. Twitter: @BarisFidaner

[1] See "Talking and Screaming" by Jacques Lacan

[2] See "Turbacracy/Turbo-crazy/Dur-bak-rasi: The Current Igdish Principle is an Anonymous Crowd Fetish", "What Relationship? Bon Vivant! (an exaggerated cartoon)", "Two Types of Idiots (Fool, Bon) and Stupid/Abdal" Slavoj Žižek, "Jikle Kaan: Hypothetical Turk Jacques Lacan", "Cakalı Kagan: Suppose a theater actor Jacques Lacan" (Fidaner, Aydoğan), "Fallik Kadın Dini: Without a Penis, Without a Child, Without a Success, Let's Give Identity", "The Mind of a Man Is Such a Manly Gentleman: The Excuse Is an Excuse/Occasion Dilemma" Slavoj Žižek

[3] See "Slavoj Žižek: The Perverse Guide to Cinema"

Kant's Murderer... and Confronting the Uncanny